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Defense Acquisition University
Defense Acquisition Magazine
An Innovation Insurgency
Written by: David L. Gallop, Ph.D.
April 19, 2018
A Call for Innovation
Our ability to predict the future is muddled by complexity and volatility. The defense acquisition “business thinking” processes are much less appropriate than they were just a decade ago. The techniques taught at Stanford University and more than 50 other colleges and universities, called Hacking for Defense (H4D), show great promise in delivering products and services rapidly while meeting warfighter needs in a repeatable, sustainable manner.
In the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) H4D pilot, students used agile and iterative development methods to solve a real world, complex problem for a high-profile sponsor in 24 days. The methods and terminology discussed in this article will be new to most readers. Some key terms and definitions used in this article are shown in Table 1.
The H4D Story
In 2010, the commander of the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF), Col. Pete Newell, observed the agility and innovation practiced by the Taliban. The Taliban had tight cycles of learning, tested their ideas quickly, and used their social networks to deploy inelegant, yet effective, solutions with devastating impact. In short, the Taliban looked and acted like a start-up. The best way to fight a start-up is with another start-up.
Newell reshaped the REF into a team of teams designed to attack and solve problems using start-up techniques. By 2013, the REF’s approach resulted in $1.4 billion of new warfighting capability flowing into Afghanistan. In 2015, after retiring, Newell combined efforts with retired Col. Joe Felter and Steve Blank—the creator of the Lean Startup movement—to introduce Stanford graduate students to the problem-curation techniques that Newell developed at REF and to Blank’s Lean LaunchPad entrepreneurship curriculum. The introduction occurred as the students worked to solve critical problems facing the Department of Defense. Newell, Felter and Blank called their program
“Hacking for Defense,” or H4D
. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry was so impressed with the results that he encouraged Stanford to make H4D a permanent part of the university’s curriculum. Within 2 short years, H4D has expanded nationwide and is solving State Department and Intelligence Community problems. That brings us to H4D at the DAU.
DAU Curricular Application
In August 2017,
the Section 809 Panel
, a congressionally directed body investigating defense acquisition reform, asked DAU to investigate the utility of the Hacking for Defense methodology to improve acquisition outcomes. In September 2017, the author attended the H4D Educator and Sponsors 3-day certification training. The training included an introduction to the Lean LaunchPad techniques and a review of the H4D curriculum. I was convinced that the only way to assess the utility of the methodology would be to run a student pilot.
The DAU leadership embraced the idea of a very limited student pilot. A call for six volunteers went out to the Program Manager’s Course (PMT-401 in the DAU Course Catalog) to spend the last 5 weeks of their 10-week course experiencing the H4D curriculum. Within 10 days of the decision to launch the pilot, the course was under way. The student team received their problem statement from their problem sponsor, the Section 809 Panel.
The Hacking for Defense Initiative (H4Di) organization (www.hdi.org) works with problem sponsors to “curate” problems. This is a process to develop, scope and bound problems so that they are reasonable starting points for the H4D student teams to solve as if the student teams were start-ups.
Why a Start-Up?
According to entrepreneur Steve Blank, a start-up is a temporary organization in search of a business model. This premise fits nicely into an academic setting. A student team is temporary, lasting no longer than a grading period. The students are also searching. They are looking for answers outside the walls of a classroom. Student teams—like start-ups—also are lean. They have very limited resources and must move quickly to solve a problem before their resources run out. Success for the student teams and for start-ups consists of acquiring the ability to solve a customer problem in a framework that is desirable, feasible and viable. That framework is the start-up’s business model.
The DAU student team would have less than 5 weeks to present their solution and supporting “mission” model to the real-world problem using the
Lean LaunchPad techniques
Lean LaunchPad is based on the premise that there are “no facts inside the building” so one must venture into the world to discover the true problem and the full solution space. The methodology starts with defining hypotheses (guesses), then testing the problem and solutions to confirm the hypotheses or pivot in the problem or solution. Students test hypotheses through many techniques but most importantly through interviewing beneficiaries (i.e., customers). Students use minimum viable products (MVPs) to test their hypotheses with beneficiaries. An MVP is a quick and cheap representation of a single or limited set of problem or solution features. MVPs can take many forms such as a flowchart, a landing page mock-up, or a physical model. The key attributes of an MVP are that it is focused, quick and cheap.
Using their MVPs as conversation “sparkers,” students interview more than 100 beneficiaries. Why so many? Typically that many interviews are needed for distinct patterns to emerge. From these patterns, students gain insight into the true nature of the problem and the depth and breadth of the solution space. At Stanford, students have an academic quarter (10 weeks) to complete the 100-plus interviews and their MVPs to deliver a solution to the problem sponsor.
Students capture their results in a framework called the Mission Model Canvas (MMC). For the DAU H4D pilot, the student team would have half the time to achieve 10 weeks’ worth of learning.
DAU Student Pilot Versus Stanford
The PMT 401 faculty team recruited potential candidates to participate in the H4D pilot while PMT 401 was in their fourth week of the 10-week program. The author presented the candidates with an overview of H4D and their tentative schedule and assignments for the 5 weeks of the pilot. The students in the H4D pilot would achieve the same learning objectives as their classmates, but in a new way. Six of the eight candidates agreed to take on the H4D pilot in lieu of the standard PMT-401 curriculum.
The H4D curriculum as taught at Stanford and other universities contains flipped learning and reverse seminars. In the flipped learning, the students are given readings, videos and team assignments that they complete outside of the classroom. When they come to class, the students present their work. At the conclusion of the student presentations, the faculty presents an Advanced Lecture that introduces the learning theme and assignments for the coming week. The Stanford 10-week H4D curriculum is punctuated with several Reverse Seminars. In these seminars, the student teams present their progress toward solving the sponsor’s problem to the faculty. The students are on the podium; the faculty are in the student seats, hence the term “reverse seminar.”
For the DAU H4D pilot, the instructors compressed the exercises and Advanced Lectures into the first 2 weeks. However, each week concluded with a reverse seminar to ensure that the student team progressed appropriately in learning and experience.
DAU H4D Pilot Learning and Outcomes
The DAU H4D learning activities began when the student team received the problem statement from their problem sponsor, the Section 809 Panel. The Section 809 Panel, created in Section 809 of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and amended by Section 863(d) of the NDAA for FY 2017, is tasked with finding ways to streamline and improve the defense acquisition process. The Section 809 Panel submitted a problem to H4Di in September 2017. Representatives at H4Di worked with the problem sponsor to refine the problem before the DAU H4D students received the problem. The problem statement the DAU H4D students received in October 2017 was the following: “Develop a way for program managers to measure and standardize a culture that is conducive to success.”
The team members wrestled with the problem statement and decided that they needed to tighten the problem if they had any chance of delivering a real solution in 5 weeks. The team dialogued with the representative of the Section 809 Panel to refine the problem to be: “Identify a method for program managers to visualize their program office culture.” This allowed the team to identify a specific set of beneficiaries for their initial Mission Model Canvas (MMC) framework.
The MMC is a variation of Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas (BMC). The BMC is widely used framework to transform ideas into desirable, feasible and viable business models. You can see the BMC evolution of some well-known companies at
As in the case of the BMC, there are nine blocks in the MMC. Table 2 illustrates how H4Di modified the BMC to create the MMC. On Day One, the students completed the entire MMC, populating the canvas with their guesses (hypotheses). Their mission for the remainder of the 5 weeks was to test their hypotheses by interviewing beneficiaries, partners, etc. Through this discovery, the team continually transformed their MMC until they verified a solution that was desirable, feasible and viable.
The team developed four MVPs. MVPs are conversation “sparkers” to facilitate the team’s learning and beneficiary discovery. The MVPs were critical tools in the team’s strategy to test both their understanding of the problem and the potential solution space. Key to the Lean LaunchPad and H4D approach is the expectation that the initial understanding of the problem and solution are wrong. The only way to get both right is to conduct simple, quick, inexpensive tests of an MVP with people that matter.
Within the learning and beneficiary discovery process, this author instructed the team to perform three tests. The first test involved using a vision box. A vision box is a figurative representation of a solution. In this test, the student team decorated a box that represented their initial solution idea. The vision box included the name and image of the solution as well as key selling points and features. Once the team completed the vision box, their next task was to “test sell” their solution.
During a DAU social barbecue, each student had to “sell” their solution for visualizing culture in a program office to at least two people at the social. Their goal was to get people to say “yes” or, even better, “yes if” to the solution. With a “yes if,” the team would gain insight into what was wrong with their initial solution. Test selling with the vision box proved to be wildly successful for the team based on the rich feedback they received.
As the team refined their solution, they hypothesized that the workforce would need to provide daily inputs into a software application. The team conducted a “landing page test.” In this test, the students waited for DAU employees to arrive at their desks for the workday. The team asked the subject employees to give their reaction to a PowerPoint representation of the data entry page. They also asked the employees about the concept of providing the requested data when they first logged in for the day. The team received interesting feedback on the substance of the data entry page and the concept. The feedback made the team reconsider major aspects of their solution.
Eventually the team reached a high degree of confidence that it was on the right track for its cultural visualization tool. The team challenged their solution by performing an A/B test. In the A/B test, the team tested their proposed solution against a different solution. Since the team’s preferred solution (Solution-A) was technical, software and data driven, the team proposed a solution that was the exact opposite (Solution-B), a cultural consultant. They tested the two side-by-side with beneficiaries and received feedback. Their A/B test verified key elements of what they understood the problem to be and verified that they adequately explored the solution space.
In just 24 days, the team had interviewed 105 beneficiaries, developed four MVPs and run three formal tests. They presented their solution to visualizing culture in a program office to the problem sponsor, the Section 809 Panel, on Nov. 9, 2017. The problem sponsor agreed that the solution was desirable, feasible and viable. In short, the student start-up had found its mission model.
Typically, promising solutions that come out of the H4D process at Stanford move onto a venture capital incubation phase. For the DAU H4D student pilot solution, DAU will perform the incubation role and has teamed with a technology vendor and several program offices to test the cultural visualization tool in the real world. The DAU H4D pilot demonstrated the power of the Lean LaunchPad techniques and the incredible potential that resides in the DAU student body. The innovation insurgency is just starting.
Two of the six students in the H4D student pilot continue to support testing the team’s solution in several program offices. Another two students are volunteering their time to mentor Georgetown University students in that university’s second H4D cohort.
David Gallop is a professor at the Defense Acquisition University’s Defense Systems Management College where he is the acting director of the Leadership Learning Center of Excellence and a lead instructor in the executive programs. He served in various tactical and acquisition positions in his 21-year Army career and has a Ph.D. and Master of Science (MS) degree in Systems Engineering from the George Washington University. He also has a MS degree in National Resource Strategy from the National Defense University and an MBA degree in Government Contract Management from the Florida Institute of Technology.
The author can be contacted at
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